Back in 1829, newly inaugurated President Andrew Jackson vowed to remain close to the people who elected him. Turning over a new leaf, he held a no-invitation reception at the White House, which quickly opened the doors to clouds of smoke, barrels of wine, and a fair share of brawls. Jackson had to flee the chaos. Eventually, aides served liquor outside to lure the revelers back out to the lawn.
Jackson’s desire to stay close to the masses is reflected in the Obama administration, but in a virtual way, through its wildly popular “We the People” online petition process. Starting in late 2011, the president vowed to respond to any petition that accumulated 5,000 online signatures, a figure quickly raised to 25,000. But as Obama prepared for his second inauguration, the White House announced it was again raising the bar. Given the scores of petitions that passed the 25,000 mark to require a White House response, including ones to build a “Death Star,” deport CNN talk-show host Piers Morgan, and impeach the president himself, the new threshold is now 100,000.
In a nation of more than 300 million people, that’s a reasonable cut-off, and still low enough to allow causes with bona fide support to be heard. The sillier petitions may attract more attention, but the site has also opened a window to political issues that enjoy more widespread public backing than lawmakers might have realized, including massive support for marijuana legalization. And if the occasional gag petition continues to qualify, the White House staff can find creative ways to respond. (Its response to the Death Star petition: Obama does not “support blowing up planets.”)
Jackson would be pleased. He was, after all, the first president who did not come from America’s political elite, a man that citizens considered their own. They wanted to see him, to talk to him, because he was one of them. But as he gathered from his wild inaugural party, there have to be some rules and limits. Obama could have learned from his predecessor’s woes: If invited, the people will come, en masse.